In the past, Hollywood tends to create a certain stigma around the Black Panther Party in their films, documentaries, and series. A certain stigma that makes the party feel like they are lacking depth or partially developed, always stereotypically inclined to fight the power in a heartless fashion.
Conversely, Judas and the Black Messiah is probably one of the first major Hollywood films that humanize the organization and shine a light on their activism of self-determination of the Black community.
Director Shaka King takes a realistic, deep and impactful approach towards a story about racial justice that is often underrepresented in Hollywood which shows in the script that he wrote with Will Berson.
Judas and the Black Messiah tells the story of Black Panthers’ Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton and the final years of his life before he was killed in a raid conducted by Chicago Police in 1969 at the youthful age of 21.
The film explores Hampton’s work of criticizing police brutality and the racial disparities in the era while inspiring other activists to build support in the community, alluring the charm and significance of the young man through the performance of Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” fame.
The film, as well as its title, correlates Hampton’s push towards unity and equality with the biblical tale of Jesus Christ.
Of course, when there is a Messiah, there is a Judas.
William O’Neal, portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield, is a young crook who was enlisted and blackmailed by the FBI to infiltrate the Chicago charter of the Black Panthers and help with taking down Hampton.
The story is told from O’ Neal’s perspective as he becomes one of Hampton’s closest allies while evolving one of his greatest downfalls.
As the story progress, O’ Neal begins to express doubt to continue his mission as he witnesses the Panther’s work helping Black communities such as creating a kid’s breakfast program. Efforts to lure him back were made by his FBI contact, played by Jesse Plemons, who tries to persist that the Black Panthers are just as malicious as the Ku Klux Klan.
The film manages to balance the Panthers’ goal to improve the community and the militancy that the audience might associate with the party while narrating the story of the death of ideals in a country muddled in racism.
Judas and the Black Messiah encapsulates the journey of the two men that shared fidelity towards the same cause while complimenting the chemistry the two have with each other.
Kaluuya’s take on Hampton not only embraces the impact on how he had as a leader, a role model, and an advocate for a change in the system. The Hampton on-screen also radiates the potential future that he was building towards for not just himself, but for his future child and community. Although feeling wariness with O’ Neil, Hampton eventually makes him one of his own.
Stanfield’s performance does an exceptional job by inhabiting the role of the film’s unfortunate soul who longs to be a part of them. Stanfield manages to showcase his acting range in O Neal’s transformation from a criminal whose only motivation is to avoid jail to a hollowed shell that destroyed the man and organization that brought him under his wing.
Judas and the Black Messiah is a drama that addresses the untimely issues of white privilege in law enforcement as its Black characters are trying to break free from the suppression and exploitation Black communities face.
Although it might be a dramatization of its own facts, the film provides a realistic tale of hope, revolution, and betrayal.
Featured image: Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya appear in Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson.